Seven years ago, when Beatrice Valenzuela was shopping at an open-air market in Mexico, she met an old guy who makes shoes. Valenzuela, who is a stylist and therefore a fashionable sort of girl, fell in love with the shoes. They were leather moccasins, charmingly hand-sewn, in a traditional indigenous style. "Let me import your shoes to America," Valenzuela begged the zapatero.
"Why don't you design your own?" the shoemaker, Ricardo Medina, replied. "And I'll make them." An international collaboration was born. To the partnership, Medina brought a lifetime's worth of shoemaking skills. Valenzuela brought her earthy, bohemian, casual-luxury aesthetic.
"If I want to wear them," she figured, "I'm sure there's gonna be a lot of other girls who'd want to."It has always been this way, ever since Valenzuela was a child. She'd buy a backpack and weeks later see five other girls carrying the same one. At first she was irritated. But a wise aunt advised her to be flattered instead. "From then on, my mindset changed," Valenzuela explains, "to 'we can all have it.'?"
So back and forth she and the zapatero went, creating prototypes. Medina's moccasins already had a lot going for them. Others had too much fringe, were too wide or looked too much like costumes. His were plain and minimal. The leather was supple. The soles were made of recycled rubber tires - a common material in Mexico, because it is durable, flexible and inexpensive.
With a few crucial tweaks, the shoes could be elegant. Valenzuela picked the colors - rich cobalt, brown, fuchsia. She trimmed the toe box, made it more feminine and less bulky. "Not like an Ugg boot," she says, "where it loses the shape of the foot."
Then she worked her connections. Her friends are stylists and shop owners who appreciate "beautiful craft that's seriously approached." Thus, an interior-design store, Commune, became the first shop to carry Beatrice Valenzuela moccasins. Then the gift shop in the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, "where chic people from all over the world stay." She also sells the shoes at the biannual Echo Park Craft Fair, which she co-founded and hosted for its first few years in her front yard. Buyers from L.A.'s top tier of indie retailers snapped them up.
Valenzuela's business acumen has always been acute. Growing up in Mexico City, she'd buy candy bars in bulk at 30 cents a piece and sell them at school for a dollar apiece. After college at the Sorbonne in Paris, Valenzuela moved to Los Angeles in her early 20s and studied anthropology at Pasadena City College. Now 32, she has her own store, which bears her name, just a few blocks from her home in Echo Park.
"I order the shoes, and Ricardo makes them with a small team of workers," she says. She keeps her line tight: just the moccasins, a few booties and a couple thongs, including a "running sandal" with a string you wrap around your ankle, modeled after ones worn by the Tarahumara tribe in Northern Mexico. "Originally it was for people who had to run messages over long distances."
It has been hard to keep the shoes in stock. People are more than happy to pay the $175 to $210 retail price. They have literally bought them off Valenzuela's feet. "When you look at the shoe, you can very easily see how it was put together. You understand it. That simplicity, it's attractive," she explains, a smile stealing across her face. "I still feel like I'm selling candy. It's just the same."
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